The Stages of Labor Explained!

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Do you know how labor progress is explained?  IN STAGES!! It can be kind of confusing when you first learn about the different stages of labor because, while there are three main stages, the first stage is broken down even further into its own three stages. Confused yet? Let us help fix that. We want you to enter your birth feeling strong, powerful and educated—able to understand what is happening with your body during labor and to anticipate what’s likely to come next.

Let’s begin with the easy stuff. As we mentioned above, there are three main stages of labor:

Stage 1: From when labor begins until the time your cervix is fully dilated to 10 centimeters. “Contractions Stage”

Stage 2: From when your cervix is 10 centimeters dilated until your baby is born. “Pushing stage”

Stage 3: From when your baby is born until you’ve birthed the placenta. “Birthing placenta stage”

Pretty easy so far right? Let’s go further into our education and break down the first stage into its smaller three stages.

First stage of the First Stage… EARLY LABOR

This stage begins when you start having consistent contractions that don’t go away. They’ll also begin to change your cervix in some way (dilation, effacement or position). This stage ends when your cervix reaches about 6cm.

Early labor is where most women will spend most of their time in labor. Statistically, first time mothers will spend somewhere around 12-24 hours in this stage.

The contractions during the beginning of this stage might feel like gentle pressure, menstrual cramps, tightening, or back aches, and usually feel lighter than contractions later in labor. As the contractions get longer in length, closer together and more powerful, the cervix usually follows suit and ups its game with more rapid changes.  By the time you are having contractions that last at least a minute long, are roughly 3 minutes apart and take all your focus to relax your body and breath through, you may be near the end of your EARLY LABOR stage.

During the early labor stage, moms will sometimes experience a need to pee more often, have looser bowel movements and may notice more cervical mucus that may or may not be mixed with blood.

Women are usually really excited during this stage. They know things are changing and happening to their body and they are eager to meet their little one. They call all the people, get all the things ready and walk, squat and do their best to keep things moving along.

DOULA TIP: During the beginning part of this stage SLEEEEPPPP. You can sleep—or, at the very least, rest—through these early pressure sensations. Turn on some calming music or your Hypnobabies Deepening track and GO TO SLEEP. You will need your energy when you can no longer sleep through the sensations. If this is truly your baby’s birthing day, your contractions will continue whether you walk 10 miles or lay down and rest. When it’s time…it’s time!

Second Stage of First Stage… ACTIVE LABOR

This stage begins when your cervix reaches about 6 cm and lasts until about 8 cm. In general, your cervix will have become very soft and effaced; probably somewhere around 70-90%. Your cervix is general more anterior (forward) during the active stage than it was during early labor. Baby is also dropping down into your pelvis making their way out one contraction at a time.

During active labor, the cervix will dilate about 1 cm per hour according to the Friedman curve (Link for Friedman curve)  That means, in theory, this stage will take about 2 hours. It’s important to remember, though, that this is an AVERAGE and not a hard-and-fast rule. As a doula, I’ve seen moms speed through this stage in minutes and moms spend their weekends camped out in this stage. During this time it’s deeply important to relax fully during each wave of pressure and breathe deeply and powerfully.

The contractions during this stage are quite a bit stronger than those in the early stage, but they can be manageable with care and support. Back massages, relaxation techniques, Hypnobabies Easy First Stage track, counter pressure from your doula, hydrotherapy from a shower or bath and affirmations can make this stage of labor more comfortable.

Some moms feel nauseous and may even vomit. Alcohol prep pads will be your best friend—open one up and breath deeply through your nose. It sounds strange but, in my experience, they tend to work better than peppermint oil when the nausea is strong.

You may feel the need to pee constantly. As the baby comes down into your pelvis it likely feels like you need to pee about every 10 minutes. You may also notice some bloody show each time you wipe.

DOULA TIP: During this stage, enjoy the toilet. Your body naturally relaxes all of the pelvic floor muscles when you sit on a toilet, which allows more room for baby to come into the pelvis and encourages lots of good progress.. You can also pee whenever you want while you’re there! You may even hear your provider or doula refer to the toilet as “the dilation station”—it’s that great. Here’s an extra tip: sit backwards and straddle the toilet. It opens your hips wider and your partner can sit behind you on a chair to provide counter pressure and a loving embrace for you to lean back into. Relaxing and Progressing! WINNING!

Third Stage of First Stage… TRANSITIONAL LABOR

This stage begins when your cervix reaches about 8cm and lasts until your cervix reaches 10cm. Your cervix will become fully effaced, melt away completely and your uterus will point anterior as it gets ready for your baby to exit.

Transitional labor can take a half hour to a few hours. If it’s taking a bit longer, it’s likely that baby needs a little time to get in the right position for birth. You can try moving into different positions to help your baby get settled just how they want to be for birth.

The contractions during this stage can be quite intense and powerful. Your body is doing two really amazing things at once: opening the last little bit of cervix and moving baby down through your pelvis.

Most moms won’t be able to pee well during this stage because baby’s head is too low for urine to pass through easily. You may notice a good amount of bloody show as your body finishes melting away your cervix. You may also get the “shakes”. This is completely normal—it’s your hormones’ way of telling your body “Heeeyyy…We are getting close.” So exciting!!!

DOULA TIP: Your contractions will be very powerful during transitional labor! If you are choosing to have an unmedicated birth, this is the stage when many women state they can’t do it anymore. This is often the most difficult part of labor, but it is usually also the quickest. You are almost there! That feeling of power and oxytocin high is minutes away. Tell yourself. “YES I CAN! YES I CAN!” until you feel that urge to bear down and push you baby into the world and into your arms. Having your partner or doula to help you stay in control and continue to breathe, apply deep and wonderful counter pressure and be your ever strong rock while you are rocking this birth will be incredibly helpful during this time.

Contraction Quick reference:

Early Labor contractions can be anywhere from 5-30 minutes apart lasting 20-60 seconds.

Active Labor contractions can be 2-5 minutes apart lasting around 60 seconds.

Transition contractions can be about 2 minutes apart lasting about 90 seconds.

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